Kissing the Patriarch Goodbye

The last time I spoke to my father he was dead. It changed my life.

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Photo by David Papillon on Unsplash

There are as many types of fathers and daughters as there are fathers and daughters. Each daughter, though, only has one father to claim, one story to tell about the father she got. It’s each daughter’s prerogative whether she needs that story to develop over the course of her life, whether she wants to make sense of the way her father filled his role, who this man was, and who he was to her.

Over time, the story became familiar enough to me, and foundational enough to our relationship, that it started to feel like mystory. I WAS the daughter of this remarkable man. “Let me tell you all about him!”

What we know about myths, of course, is that they are larger than life, but also, that they are just that …myths. This, after all, was the ‘above the water line’ story, the one that bound me to my father in this first chapter of being his daughter. But it was a story that cast a shadow, and as the years past with my growing up in that shadow, I began to see the contours of a different father.

He was anxious about his health and his finances, mumbling about how hard he’d worked his whole life to make money only to find himself so preoccupied with how to hold onto it. Yet on this visit, he seemed especially irritable and elusive, and to any one paying attention, he was clearly in very poor health.

But over the years, I’d been forced to accept that a thousand daughters couldn’t have filled him up or taught him to see beyond his need to see himself.

After all, for a family to tell stories there needs to be love, attention paid to one another, a fondness for each other’s quirks, there must be plot lines with conflict and resolution, humor, humility, and, essentially, time together, in one another’s company. In fact, the story of this family, my family, might be that it suffered from the affliction of rarely telling stories about itself.

It was also likely this orientation that led her to wonder why I would think to visit a father who’d been carved up and stored in a freezer for two days. But when she clearly saw I wasn’t going to give up on the idea, she gave me the number for the funeral home, asking me again, “Really?”

I began to know the grey, sodden flavor of depression that sets in after too many years going by when your self-esteem feeds on self-doubt. I learned to be small, to see others as the perennial authority, to default to the belief that something was just wrong and broken with me.

That’s why it was confusing for decades to see it as abuse. There were no visible scars or bruises, no alcohol or drugs involved, no sexual violation. Quite the opposite. My father was such a successful, cultured and accomplished man after-all. In time, I’ve learned that the insidiousness of the narcissists hand is that it doesn’t always land on the skin; it lands in the victim’s heart where, invisibly, it can teach you to devour your own soul.

Years later, I learned about projective identification, a defense of choice for malignant narcissists, more popularly understood as gaslighting. It happens when the narcissist projects some part of themselves they can’t tolerate or acknowledge (their vulnerability, immorality, or select emotions) onto another. They vilify that quality in their victim and, confused and devastated, the attack is taken in, believed, leaving the victim turned inside out, self-immolating while the narcissist is successfully resurrected, moving on his or her merry way.

He started his ruddy-cheeked day with a shot of whisky in his tea, (poured behind his wife’s back), and, after billiards at the pub in the evening, he returned home prone to outbreaks of drunken violence. His older son, my father, was the preferred recipient of this kind of attention. If he was caught out with the girls or didn’t finish his school work — impeccably — he would feel it in a less than forgiving assault on the all-too-human flesh of his body.

These details had such a particularity, so painfully and preciously belonging to this lifetime, this man, and to the only father I ever knew. Awash in tenderness, I took him in, the man who, at birth, I was destined to adore.

I realized then that it wasn’t just my anger that had been silenced over the years, but also my love. It had been too real, to immediate, too tender to take in for a man who somehow, in the deeper contours of himself, must have himself doubted whether he was worthy of it. And it was from this foundation of openness, that my conversation with my father began. Not with anger and hatred, but with love.

“I didn’t know how to protect myself from you. You were the one who was supposed to protect me in the world. But no one protected me. I couldn’t protect my brothers either, or my mother.”

Unable to lift a finger and arrested by his own death from speaking one measured or bitter word, he lay astoundingly there, his body more still and available in my presence than it had ever been.

It was really the first time I’d ever been myself in his presence, but this time, for the first time, it happened with my words. It was my story.

Post Script

In stepping closer into those truths, I discovered the emptiness that tragically hides in the hearts of so many of our “successful” men, men like Donald Trump, and the many men who voted for him who were raised to “succeed” in a culture where so many have been fated to fail.

Writer/student of the truth. Lives at the intersection of philosophy, the gender (r)evolution, politics, psychology and art of parenting.

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